Harry Potter, the Wizard of Earthsea, and the Difference Between American and British Wizards

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    Then I think you’d like Uprooted.Report

  2. Avatar Rose Woodhouse
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    Hmmm. At the risk of performing an act the moral equivalent of which is defending Soul Man, let me just put in a word for Austen. Look, there’s no question she’s got some icky views about birth and rank (as she might put it), especially in Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I do look past it because I find so much else valuable in her novels (as I look past Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism and sexism, without ignoring or excusing). I understand why someone would be either unable to do that, or immoral of me to do that. I see it as something I have to live with and acknowledge in engaging in the works that I value for other reasons. They are moral and aesthetic defects, but not deal-killers (to me).

    However, I would like to say that Austen’s view on birth and rank is not totally cut-and-dried awfulness (although it is partly!). It’s worth noting that while most (not all) of her *male* protagonists are top drawer, half of her female protagonists have non-aristocratic immediate forbears: Fanny in Mansfield Park, Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Catherine in Northanger Abbey. In the conclusions of their novels, Fanny and Elizabeth are both shocking marriage partners from the men’s point of view, women so declasse that the men’s families make vigorous objections. And of course, the men are portrayed as having done the right thing by ignoring family protests and marrying them. (In Mansfield Park, the family has so completely fallen apart that they just give up objecting out of exhaustion.)

    The exception to the toff male protagonists is in Persuasion, where the guy is the second son (gasp) of a gentleman, but seeks to marry above his level by pursuing a baronet’s daughter. He has to go out and earn money by his skill in the navy (which probably involved plundering, but that’s offscreen), but he’s seen as all the more admirable for that. Also in that novel (her last, and prehaps her views were evolving – she died at 42), the baronet is something of a dope. He loses all his money and must rent out his ancestral home. The guy who rents it is another navy man, an admiral. Austen makes very clear that the admiral (who earned his money instead of inheriting it) is clearly the more admirable (ha) man, and is far more deserving of the ancestral pile than a ridiculous baronet.

    But I digress. I need to read LeGuin.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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      If we can talk about bloodlines without offending Tod, LeGuin’s books often including anthological anthropological insights, which is unsurprising because her father was Alfred L. Kroeber (the K. in Ursula K. LeGuin).Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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      The characterization of Austen novels seems off to me. You clearly cannot learn everything you need to know about a character’s, um…, character by looking at the parents. Just taking Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Wickham’s failings aren’t due to his parentage. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s bloodline is exquisitely flawless. At the same time, Jane’s Aunt and Uncle Gardner are probably the two most sensible characters in the book, and they are only barely within the gentry class. Yes, Mr. Darcy is filthy rich, but so is Lady Catherine, and no one in the book who matters assumes that Mr. Darcy’s wealth equates to quality of character.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        @richard-hershberger Yes! I forgot about Uncle (and Aunt) Gardner, whose purpose in the novel (besides forwarding some plot points) is to be a dignified, respectable couple who are not gentry. They are a counterpoint to Lady Catherine, who is not only ridiculous, but is the person most attached to the importance of rank.

        Worth noting too, that the characteristic that makes Mr. Collins most ridiculous is his attention to rank and his superciliousness with Lady Catherine. We are supposed to admire Elizabeth for mouthing off to her. Forgive the extremely long quote, but I think it is illustrative of Austen on class. It is Elizabeth speaking to Lady Catherine. Lady C is trying to persuade Elizabeth not to marry her nephew, Mr. Darcy.

        “Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at all able to account for the honour of seeing you here.”

        “Miss Bennet,” replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, “you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you.”

        “If you believed it impossible to be true,” said Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, “I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?”

        “At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted.”

        “Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family,” said Elizabeth coolly, “will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence.”

        “If! Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated by yourselves? Do you not know that such a report is spread abroad?”

        “I never heard that it was.”

        “And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?”

        “I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer.”

        “This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”

        “Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”

        “It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”

        “If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”

        “Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.”

        “But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.”

        “Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?”

        “Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.”

        Lady Catherine hesitated for a moment, and then replied,

        “The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of her’s. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss De Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Have you not heard me say that from his earliest hours he was destined for his cousin?”

        “Yes, and I had heard it before. But what is that to me? If there is no other objection to my marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing that his mother and aunt wished him to marry Miss De Bourgh. You both did as much as you could in planning the marriage. Its completion depended on others. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?”

        “Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by every one connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.”

        “These are heavy misfortunes,” replied Elizabeth. “But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.”

        “Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? Let us sit down. You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.”

        “That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

        “I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient — though untitled — families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”

        “In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

        “True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

        “Whatever my connections may be,” said Elizabeth, “if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you.”

        “Tell me once for all, are you engaged to him?”

        Though Elizabeth would not, for the mere purpose of obliging Lady Catherine, have answered this question, she could not but say, after a moment’s deliberation,

        “I am not.”

        Lady Catherine seemed pleased.

        “And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?”

        “I will make no promise of the kind.”

        “Miss Bennet I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require.”

        “And I certainly never shall give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him wish to bestow it on his cousin? Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject.”

        “Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister’s infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man’s marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expence of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father’s steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth! — of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”

        “You can now have nothing farther to say,” she resentfully answered. “You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house.”

        And she rose as she spoke. Lady Catherine rose also, and they turned back. Her ladyship was highly incensed.

        “You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?”

        “Lady Catherine, I have nothing farther to say. You know my sentiments.”

        “You are then resolved to have him?”

        “I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”

        “It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world.”

        “Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,” replied Elizabeth, “have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern — and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”

        Report

  3. Avatar david
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    Luke Skywalker is a very American creation, consider who his dad is. Superhero comics – which can be intensely American – feature X being Y’s kid all the time.

    Hidden lineages are a common fairy tale idea, dating back as far as folk tale compilations go; your examples are probably not illustrative. It is probably true that British populism/egalitarianism is drawn more along class lines than individual ones, though (eg it is important that the lowborn, stereotypically Irish Weasley family are relatable, decent folk that the hero marries into, whereas the aristocratic highborn Malfoy family are incorrigibly arrogant and evil, even if this implies awkward things about heredity).Report

  4. Avatar David Parsons
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    Rose Woodhouse: … Persuasion,…

    +∞

    The rest of Austin’s work is very good, but Persuasion is spectacularly good.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    In LOTR, the real hero is not Aragorn, nor Frodo, but good ol’ commoner Sam ‘Rudy’ Gamgee.

    And all the kids in Narnia started off as urban London middle/working class before become kings and queens.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kolohe
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      Even if you take Frodo as the hero, Frodo/Bilbo (and indeed all hobbits) are shown to be unconcerned overmuch with ranks and titles and hierarchies (though obviously families are still important). Hobbits are supposed to be almost aggressively, comically “normal” and pedestrian.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe
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      says:

      True. And the Welsh liked being made fun of…Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe
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      Probably because I’m old and cynical now, but these days I see the “heroes” in LOTR and the Potter series as Gandalf and Dumbledore. Both cold-hearted old bastards that hone people as tools used in manipulative schemes spread over decades. Both with a carefully constructed facade as a jolly harmless old wizard. Some day I’ll be tempted to do fanfic for the Potter universe as seen from that Dumbledore’s perspective.

      One of the things that makes the Earthsea series enjoyable is that Ged isn’t cast in that mold.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain
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        I’ve got a fanfic rattling around my skull about a foreign exchange student turning Hufflepuff against Dumbledore. He seems a bit too much like Santa Claus… and who trusts the whitebeard in a jolly red suit going “ho ho ho”?Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Michael Cain
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        @michael-cain
        Both cold-hearted old bastards that hone people as tools used in manipulative schemes spread over decades. Both with a carefully constructed facade as a jolly harmless old wizard. Some day I’ll be tempted to do fanfic for the Potter universe as seen from that Dumbledore’s perspective.

        …you do know that’s already a trope in HP fanfic, right? Along with a related plot of Harry realizing this and escaping from Manipulative!Dumbledore’s clutches.

        http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/FandomSpecificPlot/HarryPotter
        (Search for Manipulative Bastard)Report

    • Avatar Emile in reply to Kolohe
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      I’ll give you Sam (although the whole series is one big “race X is Y because of breeding” message), but Peter Susan Edmund and Lucy are kings and queens purely because they are “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.” Literally their entire qualification is about lineage.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Emile
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        Isn’t everyone? I mean, who really traces their lineage to Lillith?Report

        • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Kim
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          Actually, in Narnia, this is rather questionable. I don’t think it ever *is* explained where the other humans come from, but I don’t think it’s earth.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Emile
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        Kim’s right, but that makes their entire qualification about their race. Which is not better (and almost certainly worse). Otoh, the number of fantasy stories where the protagonist is not some sort of ‘chosen one’ for one reason or another is vanishingly small. And any world with anthropomorphic sentient non-humans makes some dogged implications – e.g. Pluto v Goofy.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Wasn’t Soul Man that bad movie starring Jim Carey as a Harvard law student who pretended to be black to get into Harvard? I think I watched on Comedy Central when I was in high school out of sheer boredom. It was pretty bad. The fitting end would have been if Jim Carey’s character got a criminal charge pressed against him and good kick in the balls. At best you can say it falls into the genre of “well-meaning but.”

    On the main topic, I don’t think you can make a judgment on the entire fantasy genre in America and the United Kingdom because of two series of books. There are lots of American fantasy series or American books in general that also put a very emphasis on birth and blood as determining character. In David Edding’s the Belgariad, the hero was literally a product of destiny along with everybody else. The actual Tarzan of the books was superior because of his British aristocratic blood. There are other less deliberate examples like the play the Bad Seed, where the adopted girl is a psychopath because her birth mother is a psychopath. Its just that American readers do not recognize this because it manifests more “scientifically” in American books. Its about genetics, blood, and the big American bugbear of race rather than class.Report

  7. Avatar bookdragon01
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    Otoh, Hermoine, who is essential to saving Harry’s butt on numerous occasions and clearly one of the best student wizards in the school (certainly better than Harry), comes from muggle parents.

    And Ron, who is in many ways the Samwise Gangee character, comes from ‘lower class’ wizard stock.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to bookdragon01
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      Yes, I was thinking that about Hermione. And how Draco is clearly shown to be a jerk for making a big deal about blood. Harry’s parents, too, were born Muggles (IIRC).Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        Hermione’s parentage always seemed a sop to me. You still have to have the wizard gene to be a wizard. A muggle can’t study magic like you study engineering and end up a wizard. The series also ends with Hermione erasing herself from memory and fully joining the wizard world.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq
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          @leeesq

          There seems to be a not-gone into recessive gene thing that makes someone a Wizard.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq
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          The gene could have been recessive in both her parents. Two full wizard parents sometimes had kids with functionally no magic power, I forget the disparaging term Rowling used for this. Harry was half had Muggles in his family and was very powerful. Snape was half Muggle and also quite powerful. Full wizards were not necessarily powerful wizards. Harry’s own wizardly power is a function of his fate and destiny; his parentage is only a small part of that: his specialness derives not from something he was born with and is innate to his breeding, but rather as a byproduct of his mother’s act of sacrifice.

          Socially, while Harry came from “good stock,” he bristled against the class system, seeing it as basically irrational and not serving any significant social purpose — because while his parents were well-respected wizards, he had been raised by doofy, abusive Muggles, so he was socially an outsider. Most every time someone else mentions breeding and parentage, they are portrayed in the moral wrong to do so. As he matures and learns about his parents, he gets information that particularly his dad was something of an upper-class snobjerk, too; only with maturity did his father mellow out and change that behavior and the social echoes of that historical snobjerkery rebound down through the generations: Snape never really got over being humiliated by Harry’s father when they were teenagers, for instance.

          So it seems to me that a principal lesson in Harry Potter is that too much is made of class and parentage and people, both as individuals and as a society, are better-off when they stop paying attention to bloodlines and focus instead on their own behaviors.

          …Of course, maybe that’s me being a bloody American about it.Report

          • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Burt Likko
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            Full wizards were not necessarily powerful wizards.

            Almost all the powerful wizards we see are half blood. (As in, had either a Muggle or Muggle-born parent.) Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape.

            Meanwhile, some of the most inept people we see are full-bloods. Neville isn’t very good at magic, and Crabbe and Goyle are idiots.

            The most powerful full-blood we see is…Lucius, maybe? Bellatrix? Or some other death eater…although there’s a question if it really takes *power* to run around throwing curses at people, or just practice.

            Fanon believes, basically, that full-blood wizards’ gene pool is too small and a lot of the super-pure-blood fanatical ones have managed to incest themselves into genetic problems. There’s even a super-powered version of this where they’re really *really* inbred, enough that they’d never make it to birth, except that magic is managing to fix most of genetic problems, at the cost of, you know, a large amount of their magical power the rest of their life.

            There’s a certain satisfaction at having the racist theories of pureblood wizards be exactly backwards.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko
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            says:

            Why assume wizardry is as simple as a single recessive gene? We don’t believe anything so reductive for other sorts of talent.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        Harry is a half-breed. As is Snape.Report

  8. Avatar Glyph
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    says:

    Oof, there were quite a few typos in this (two or three in the opening sentence alone). I took a quick pass and tried to clean up, but you may want to check once more.Report

  9. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    Tod,

    This essay came out a few years ago:

    http://www.theawl.com/2010/11/harry-potter-and-the-incredibly-conservative-aristocratic-childrens-club

    “Rowling’s adherence to the old English principle of blood-nobility—that weird but deeply held superstition that has caused countless English protagonists to discover that unbeknownst to them, they were peers of the realm all along—is in stark contrast to the biggest conflict depicted in the Potter stories, the blood purity conflict. The bad guys, Voldemort and crew, are race purists, anti-Muggle (meaning anti-human), which is to say that they are against any magical Muggles or intermingling of Muggle blood (“Mudblood”) and wizard blood. Yet Rowling’s heroes are all noblemen, with the exception of one: Harry Potter learns in the old-fashioned surprise way that his father was a fabulously rich wizard, and his godfather is a rich aristocrat, too; Ron Weasley is a nobleman of the purest blood, though poor. The sole pure-Muggle wizard of any consequence at all in these books is Hermione, the author’s personal projection of herself (there are two other minor pure-Muggle wizards, boys, both of whom are bumped off). So this story can be read pretty effectively as an explanation of why J.K. Rowling should be allowed to hang around with the nobility (she is smart, is why).”Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      This is a prefect example of starting with the conclusion and creating supporting “facts”.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw
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      (there are two other minor pure-Muggle wizards, boys, both of whom are bumped off)

      I can’t even imagine who this is supposed to be talking about.

      I can think of exactly *one* (known) Muggle-born school-age wizard that dies. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Muggle-born school-age wizards that do not die, or at least don’t die where we know about it.

      And that article has perhaps the dumbest comment about how Hermione is treated ever: her infinite sagacity, foresightedness and teacher’s-pet-hood to be rewarded at every turn.

      Erm, no, she’s not. In fact, there’s plenty of times Harry is smarter than her, and often she fails. In fact, it’s hard to think of any time she’s actually come up with a useful solution to any real-world problem besides ‘Let’s read some about it’. (Okay, I’ll give her credit for getting rid of Umbridge. Way to attempt to murder your teacher, Hermione.) Her reputation for being smart is because she’s much better academically than the others, who are lazy in that regard, and because she often plays the role of exposition fairy via reading out of a book. Oh, and she solves a puzzle in the first book.Report

  10. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    I’ll add that the Spring movie, Kingsman, tackles the “Blood Will Out” issue head on, making the point none-too-subtely that breeding has nothing to do with character (with the original source comic being written by a Brit & a Scot).Report

  11. Avatar Roland Dodds
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    says:

    Great piece Tod. My mother was big proponent of the Earthsea books when I was growing up and she had me read them. Even with Ged’s American-minded origins and direction, I could never get into the series. Perhaps it was simply that my mother wanted me to read them, unlike other texts on the shelf she dissuaded me to pick up. I will have to revisit the series.Report

  12. Avatar DavidTC
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    says:

    There’s another difference between American and British heroes, and it causes a weird thing. Namely, a lot of American readers seem to think of think of Harry Potter and his friends as nerds.

    Harry Potter is a *jock*. He’s very good at sports, and end up coaching the team. His father was a jock. He slacks off on his schoolwork and gets the smart kid to finish it. He’s in the jock house, Gryfinddor.

    This is because in British boarding school books, the protagonists *are* jocks.

    And yet, despite the text being pretty clear about this, American readers are used to their heroes being nerds, so subconsciously, he’s a nerd.Report

  13. Avatar Michael Cain
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    Off on a tangent, but finishing the story. Earthsea is very American: Ged triumphs, then rides off into the sunset. What happens next doesn’t matter. Harry’s story is British: he triumphs, then picks up the pieces of a normal life. Wife, kids, etc.Report

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